Monday, July 9, 2012

Book Review: The Secret River by Kate Grenville

It was a bit weird at first to read this novel about a British felon transported to Australia right after having read The Fatal Shore, but I quickly got lost in the story. Will Thornhill almost made it. He was super poor growing up with a passel of siblings and no prospects. But he met a girl, Sal, and her father, who had no sons, eventually took him on as an apprentice riverman. Will was quite successful, learning the trade, buying his own boat, marrying Sal, having a kid, and it looked like the poor kid was breaking into the middle class! But then each of Sal's parents gets sick and dies in quick succession, leaving a fistful of doctors' bills Sal and Will couldn't afford, kicking them right back down to where Will started. And worse when Will gets busted, stealing some wood. Luckily, some of their earlier friends were able to pull strings and not only get Will transported instead of hanged, but get Sal transported as well (and their son).

In Australia, Will is assigned to Sal so it's not so hard. He is able to go back to working on boats and when he goes up the Hawkesbury River, he is surprised to find beautiful land that he falls in love with. He convinces Sal to move there with him and give it a shot for five years. But they quickly find out that while the wilderness looks deserted, it is anything but.

I was at first expecting a more traditional homesteading story, but the struggle with the aborigines went to a very dark place. There was a moment, 50 pages from the end, when I paused and really wondered where the story was going. I don't remember the last time an ending was set up so well. I could clearly see that the situation was coming to a head, there were multiple potential outcomes, but I really wasn't sure which one it was going to be. I just couldn't put the book down in those last pages.

This book is based on the author's ancestor, so I assume that what happened in the end actually happened. But it does make for a good story. The book uses a few conventions I'm not a fan of - the dialogue is set in italics instead of in quotation marks, and there is very little of it - but it's written so well that I barely noticed. The book is dark and yet hopeful, and really brought the Australian bush to life.

I borrowed this book from a friend.

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